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Mariam's Story

by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

24 Feb 2011 16:24Comments

Arbitrary arrests -- cornerstone of a campaign of intimidation.

Art.JPG[ dispatch ] Among all the Green Iranian youth I've met in Tehran, "Mariam," a 23-year-old student at the University of the Arts, seemed the most susceptible to psychological pressure. Even as her friends shouted "God is great" from rooftops and apartments into the Tehran night after the 25 Bahman (February 14) demonstration, this complacent, delicate girl struck me as the least likely to raise the ire of the authorities. And yet it was only she who ended up in a prison cell.

Mariam inadvertently became one of about 30 Art University students exemplarily detained by the Revolutionary Guards on February 16 as a warning to other opposition activists. On the day of her arrest, Mariam made an innocent transgression: She showed up for class on the same day that her university peers planned a demonstrative funeral for their classmate Saneh Jaleh, who was shot dead during the protests. Three days later, Mariam is working on an art project at a friend's apartment, struggling to accept her return to life as usual. She is paler and thinner than ever, but seems determined to tell her story.

"I was not doing anything wrong," Mariam says. "When the Basijis came, I just stood and hid in the corner." But even with her slight, five-foot frame, Mariam was not small enough to escape their gaze. "All of a sudden, one of them tapped me on the shoulder and asked me for my identity card." From there on, Mariam's movements became a blur to her. The man confiscated her cell phone and asked her to follow him. He did not answer her questions about where he was taking her or what she had done wrong.

Meanwhile, a swarm of Basijis rounded up her friends and classmates. Mariam recalls that one of the Basij superiors tried to restrain the rest, but the majority ignored the order and rushed at the students. "I remember being taken aback by their anger. Some of them looked like they were only about 17 years old," Mariam says. "It seemed as though they were really out to kill us."

Mariam still doesn't know the exact location of the prison cell where she was held incommunicado for 30 hours. She and two of her friends were simply blindfolded, handcuffed, and pushed into a police car. "They kept shouting insults, trying to show us that we were cheap, that our lives did not matter. We did not cry or plea with them, which I think made it worse."

She and her companions spent the night in a sleepless trance, surrounded by drug addicts and stifled by the stink of an open toilet. In the middle of the night, they were roused by a shouting guard. "He said we were going to be interrogated, and to be ready. From that point on, none of us spoke. I just kept thinking about what they were going to ask me, and what I should say."

But nothing ever happened. After what to Mariam seemed like three days, they simply released her. "The point, I think, was just to scare us," she says.

Mariam's experience suggests that the Iranian authorities are out to scare and intimidate potential dissidents rather than detain and neutralize them individually. Indeed, her 30-hour disappearance -- as well as the existence of her cell phone, which is still in police custody -- was enough to sow seeds of paranoia among her Green friends.

On the same night she languished in prison, Mariam's friend "Reza," who participated in the 25 Bahman protests, was awakened by a loud sound. Someone was incessantly ringing the buzzer to his apartment. "I thought, OK, this is it," he says. "I thought they'd come for me." Reza advised his cousin, who was spending the night there, to hide, and went to open the door.

But the uninvited guest was not a Basiji -- it was Mariam's father. "He was desperate. He said Mariam had been missing for hours and wanted to know if I knew anything," Reza says. "I did not sleep for the rest of the night. All I kept thinking was that Mariam had texted me to ask if I was going to the demonstration, and that I had replied yes."

But such intimidation tactics were not enough to dissuade these activists. On 1 Esfand (20 February), Reza and his friends once again took to the streets. Mariam, meanwhile, has made an extra appointment with her therapist. "What surprised me most about the whole thing was myself, and the fact that I remained calm," she says. "I thought, wow, Mariam, you are strong."

Photo: Arts University gate.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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